Isaiah 62:6-12+Psalm 97+Titus 3:4-7+Luke 2:8-20
Of the many things that happened in 2020, one usually significant event is the decennial census. Every ten years, every person living in the United States is to be counted according to Article 1, Section 2 (later amended) for the purposes of representation and taxation. I’m sure you know that is not an easy task given that we had 308 million people in the US at the last census. We gained about 20 million, give or take a few in the ten years since.
In the bible, God ordered Moses and Aaron to count the people of Israel who had come up out of Egypt (Numbers 1:1-46). In fact, this is where the book of Numbers gets its name. This census was likely to count the number of men who could serve as warriors when they reached an already-occupied Promised Land.
Later in 1 Chronicles, David took a census and incurred God’s wrath. We aren’t really sure why God was so angry that 70,000 people died as a result, but that’s what happened (1 Chronicles 21:1-6). One theory is that, as the text tells us, Satan inspired David to take that census. Another theory is that David didn’t trust God to deliver him from his foes so wanted to know how many men he had at his disposal. It became customary for the Jewish people, then, that a census was a bad thing.
There is another theory. Way back in 1 Samuel, the people of Israel who had been ruled under a series of Judges cried out for a king to lead them, to save them from their enemies. The prophet, Samuel, warned them that they did not want that to happen.
He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’ (1 Samuel 8:10-18)
And Samuel was not wrong.
Fast forward to the infancy narrative of Luke, and the first thing we hear is that the emperor wants the people to be registered – he orders a census. And this emperor, Augustus, was not to be refused. And this is how Luke sets us off on our journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth and all the way to a manger and shepherds in the field.
Luke is all about the global reach of the Good News. He is a Greek speaker. He wants everyone – Jew and Gentile alike – to read and understand this “orderly account” that he promises. So he goes to the top of the known world – the Roman emperor – and then narrows that vision all the way to a poor couple from nowhere town and a newborn baby boy and says, “Here is your king” (Luke 1:1).
And who are the first people to hear this Good News? Shepherds. Outsiders. People no one would associate with because, given their occupations, they could not keep the purity laws. They were unclean. Yet, the angel comes to them and says, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10) Luke takes an imperial term – euangelion, Good News – and applies it not to Caesar, but to a helpless infant. This Good News is not about a king seated on an earthly throne; it is about a king who emptied himself of might and power and wealth. He might as well have been one of those shepherds.
Which is precisely the point. Jesus stood with the vulnerable and the marginalized and the poor because that is what he was. His parents were forced to travel for days under difficult circumstances simply because the emperor decided he wanted more taxes and needed a count. They later had to flee into Egypt because that emperor’s local representative couldn’t have people walking around saying that there was a new king in town. The ministry Jesus embarks upon some thirty years later had its roots in these stories surrounding his birth and early childhood. It should have come as no surprise to anyone.
All these years later, most of us know who Augustus was from our history books. Except for hearing his name every year on Christmas Eve, none of us would remember a Syrian governor named Quirinius. Ah, “but at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10).
It seems very 2020 that such Good News should come to lowly shepherds. The Herods and Augustuses and Quiriuniuses of the world are certainly invited to hear the Good News, but it isn’t really for them. They won’t be able to hear these angels singing, not really. When you have everything to lose, you’re going to protect it against the One who asks all of it of you. But for those who have nothing, who are suffering or grieving or struggling? Those are the ones who strain to hear this good news of great joy.
Maybe some of us can’t really hear the angels singing this year, either. It’s been hard, so hard, for so many people. The pain and sorrow of the world right now can seem overwhelming, and we just want to get through it. Anglican priest Joyce Carroll Wallace writes, “Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally he becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees, and nobodies.”
So this is where Jesus was born. Into the pain and sorrow of the world. And the angel said don’t be afraid. This is good news for all people. Even you and me. Maybe we need to go find a hillside to sit and gaze up at that elusive convergence of Jupiter and Saturn, listening for the song of the angels. It’s there if you just stop and listen.
The shepherds heard it. And after they had gone to Bethlehem and seen what had been told them, they went right back to where they had come from, back to the hillside and the sheep. But they were changed. They glorified and praised God because they had seen their salvation. Once you’ve been to the manger, there’s no turning back.
So come, all ye faithful, and greet this newborn king.